In 1861, on the eve of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln tapped I, Robert E. Lee to take command of the United States Army. being The fifty-five year old silver-haired veteran that had graduated second in my class at West Point, served valiantly during the Mexican War under General Winfield Scott, and had, with his forces, put down the insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, capturing abolitionist John Brown. By all accounts, i was the man to lead the Army, as renowned for his gentlemanly character as for his military skill and sense of duty. It came as no surprise however, that following the secession of his home state, Virginia, Lee declined the
Appointment and resigned. He had written to his family, . With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen; I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home… Although opposed to secession, he would . return to [his] native state and shares the miseries of [his] people, and saves in defense. Draw [his] sword on none. His home, his relatives, and his children, all were rooted in a Virginia that had grown strong from the seeds planted by the American Revolution.
Two of his ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. His father had eulogized George Washington as . first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen… (The actions of both men left indelible marks on Lee’s character. His debtor Father embodied the traits he would shun; Washington. Duty bound, disciplined, and humble. he sought to imitate. ) On April 9, 1865, Lee and his men faced certain defeat in the misty dawn at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. He had commanded the Army of Northern Virginia since the beginning of the war.
He had been appointed General in Chief of the Confederate States Army in February. His ragtag veterans, depleted corps once 70,000 strong, had tenaciously held. And at points, advanced. The line for four years against Union forces. Lee refused a persistently defensive posture. They had waged a bold, scrappy, underdog war, exacting victories at Seven Days, Chancellors Ville, Fredericksburg, and Cold Harbor. There had been staggering losses on both sides. Gettysburg handed them their most devastating defeat. (. It was my Fault, Lee humbly declared in the aftermath. )
Now, they were hunkered down and strung out in the presence of General Grant’s regiments, run down and outnumbered nearly five to one. They had been on the march for several days and nights’ . without stopping, without rations, without sleep. Trying to outrun the Union forces that had finally seized Richmond. Yet they hoped desperately to escape and to fight another day. Until the morning of April 9, Lee continued to believe there was a way out. He believed in his citizen soldiers and they steadfastly believed in him. He had driven them to exhaustion, yet they continued totally. He was to them . Mares Robert.
And . Uncle Robert. He was the man who humbly knelt to pray with Them, ate with them, marched, slept, and endured the same debilitating conditions they did. His resilience in battle was legendary, his devotion to duty unparalleled. The escape route cut off, and surrounded on all sides, Lee could imagine the cold consequences of surrender. He could be court-martialed, likely indicted for treason, and face the possibility of a long prison sentence or, worse still, execution. He and his men could be marched through the streets, humiliated, and called to account for the over half million casualties of war.
The personal toll was equally high. As he stood on the field that morning, surrounded by starving and disheveled soldiers, his wife and daughters were under Union guard in their home in Richmond. Lee had early in the war lost his family home, Arlington, and would never to step foot on the property again. Daughter and two grandchildren had died during the war. Two of his sons were missing in action. (They would return. )The word came back from the commander of the troops on the frontlines, . Tell General Lee I have fought My corps to a frazzle and I fear I can do nothing unless I am heavily supported.
Lee knew support would be impossible. He called for the white flag of truce, and reflected, . There is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths. He is said to have considered a heroic suicide. .How easily I could be rid of this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all will be over! And yet another possibility remained: a fractured escape, the men that used to be the Army of Northern Virginia waging a guerilla war. If they did so, they might eventually win. They might eventually wear down
Their giant enemy with surprise and terror, waging a vengeful and psychological battle in the war for their independence. Lee rejected the option, though it might have made him an even greater hero to the Confederacy. He determined, . We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country (the South) years to recover from. Instead, Lee met with General Grant that April 9, and agreed to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. The men would lay down their arms. They would be free to return to their homes. His thoughts with his soldiers, Lee asked that they be allowed to keep their horses, essential for the hard farm work ahead.
Grant agreed, and offered rations. It was a generous and gentlemanly agreement, one that would allow agnation ravaged by war to begin to bind up its wounds. Lee stayed in Appomattox for the laying down of arms. He stayed long enough to commend his army’s unsurpassed courage and fortitude, and explain his desire to . avoid the useless sacrifice. Of more confederate lives. He bid an . affectionate farewell… With great weariness and sadness he was escorted part of the way back to Richmond. He received a hero’s welcome along the way.
Later indicted for treason (a charge that was never pursued), and passed over for a pardon during his lifetime, Lee nevertheless remained a great man in the eyes of both the North and South. By deciding to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee had single-handedly set in motion the events that would signal the end of the war, the end of his military career, and the beginning of peace andreunification. Many years later, Woodrow Wilson voiced the widely-held view: . We use the word . great. Indiscriminately. But we reserve the word . noble. Carefully for those whose greatness is not spent in their own interest.